4. MISADVENTURES CLOSE TO HOME 1990 - 1994
The years before I hit thirty were easy to document, those years of glorious youth we all remember; one long trip played out at a million miles an hour with drug fucked dreamers and right on, fist punching revolutionaries. But as soon as my involvement in the music game ended, everything about my world changed. Work-home-kids-TV-sleep-repeat took some getting used to, my boundaries constricting to become insular and routine like everybody else’s. And yet the fact is, I remember the early nineties as a time of change and upheaval, not just for me but for the country as a whole. While my marriage was a derelict cul-de-sac I had to get out of, the countries union with the tyranny of Thatcher was granted an unexpected decree absolute in November 1990 when, betrayed by her own party, she was forced out of Downing Street, the sight of her tears glorious to behold.
It never ceased to amaze me just how popular the wicked witch had been amongst those whose own experience should have taught them otherwise. It seemed obvious to me that from the moment she acceded to the throne she was intent on dismantling the culture and very fabric of British society in some kind of delusional attempt to take us back to the halcyon days of her idyllic Lincolnshire childhood. And yet no-one seemed to care or even notice that amongst the cut price jingoism and Romanesque decadence of the me, me, me eighties, everything was for sale, everything had its price but nothing was truly valued or understood.
Similarly, in the early nineties it felt like music culture was also emerging from a period of hard line traditionalism as previously resolute and recognisable forms began to splinter into sharply defined sub genres. Rave, a matrix of lifestyle and ritualised behaviour forged from acid house, had already started its retreat from the dancefloor, the sound of darkness shadowing its swoony delirium, while hip hop and the rise of gangsta rap was rapidly turning into a bigoted, malignant force celebrating rebellion without responsibility and sensation as truth. Yet no matter where they were heading, both rave and hip hop were at least evolving, and at an incredible rate too.
Unfortunately the same couldn’t be said of indie rock. Like a knackered old limo stuck in reverse, it had become synonymous with a mass retreat to any number of styles from rock history, the musical equivalent of reproduction antiques. Worryingly, it was also not just permissible but mandatory for so called ‘alternative’ musicians to grow their hair long, use a wah wah pedal, play solos and indulge in all kinds of hedonistic crap for the first time since the seventies. Rock and all the clichés we’d fought so hard to destroy in the punk years returned with a vengeance, and even though Kurt Cobain would mastermind one glorious last hurrah, there was no disguising how lumpen, outdated and downright ridiculous most of it sounded.
Disconnected from the indie experience, I ignored the abundance of desperate, media generated styles. Only shoegazing held my attention and that was because it came from the anodyne, provincial hinterland of my hometown and the Thames Valley. A lot of it was happening almost literally on my doorstep, but my only direct contact came when I was dragged along to a Chapterhouse show by ex-Criminal Damage photographer Pete Rowe whose brother Simon was a member. Admittedly it may have been because I hadn’t ventured out to see a show in a while, but I thought they were rather good, albeit that their supposed acid experiences were clearly coming from informed music collections as opposed to genuine drug excess.
Too nice and sensible to be drug fiends like Shaun Ryder and his scallies, it was equally obvious that Chapterhouse and their coterie of college chums were in the minority because everyone else was getting completely loaded, a lost generation sucked into a hedonistic void and cast adrift deep within their own bewilderness, their special agony being that they could see far enough ahead to know that the future held no place for their hopes and dreams.
Lost in my own bewilderness I knew how they felt but ironically, just as ecstasy and getting wasted became de rigueur, I turned away from all the druggy shenanigans and settled down to a quieter pop life of full on fatherhood and self-imposed responsibility. With most of my time spent in the company of an eight and a five year old, I found myself adrift from youth culture, a mere observer on the wrong side of thirty. While the nation’s youth raved on I was in a different place entirely, working a job with the wonderfully naïve notion that the nobility of everyday life and the quiet dignity of labour would somehow get me through.
Thankfully I had moved on from the cliquey, hierarchical grip of Her Majesties postal service to drive a lorry for my former employer Reading Borough Council. And yet while it was more money with no exhausting night shifts, I could find nothing noble in digging out miles of weeds only to return a couple of weeks later once they’d grown back to repeat the pointless exercise. And there was absolutely nothing dignified in shovelling up dog turd's from the pavement or scraping up road kill cats, their guts and brains splattered across the tarmac.
Admittedly I did occasionally revel in the sweat and the stink of it all, amused at the horrified reaction in the pub when we walked in reeking of fish guts after an evening’s overtime on the bins, but in the main I was just happy to get through another day. And predictably, despite the bonds of brotherhood forged with my fellow workers as we battled the petty bureaucracy, outrageous incompetence and daily bullshit of local government, once the novelty had worn off I realised with a frightening sense of clarity that I had relinquished my dreams to buckle down to a life of terminal mediocrity like every other fucker. And for once music failed to come to my immediate rescue.
At the start of the new decade I had suddenly and quite unexpectedly grown tired of listening to anything, going so far as to stop buying the music press, sell all my records and avoid pubs with jukeboxes unless it was half an hour until closing time and I had was no choice. Then one night I turned the radio on and there was John Peel, still a beacon of incredible diversity playing Public Enemy’s ‘Welcome To The Terrordome’. From that moment on I started listening again, and as a consequence, for possibly the first time in my life I became the arbiter of my own good taste free of influence from outside forces; The Orb nestling next to Nirvana, the Jesus and Mary Chain next to the Wu-Tang Clan. It was still prophecy as it always had been but it was no longer dictated by notions of cool, lazy nostalgia or cynical marketing campaigns. Then quite by chance I rekindled another old flame, my long lost teenage passion for motorcycle sport.
I’d messed around on motorbikes for most of my adolescence, racing around what was left of Woodley Aerodrome on stripped down mopeds and scramblers and attending a speedway training camp at Reading’s Smallmead Stadium. And so I bought a motocross bike, helmet and all the gear and started racing, the adrenaline rush of bashing bars with thirty or so daring amateurs every Sunday far more intense than any chemically induced high I’d ever experienced. For four years straight I hooked up with my equally enthusiastic brother Joe to race on tracks scattered across the south, returning home late in the day exhausted yet euphoric, the resulting high getting me through the subsequent working week.
In hindsight my early thirties was probably a little too late to fulfil my adolescent love for speed and danger, at least that’s what it felt like when an innocuous fall ripped a gaping hole in my knee that required forty stitches and a month on crutches. Once I’d recovered I returned to racing but realised as soon as I got on the bike that I’d lost my nerve and decided to bow out honourably rather than continue, opting instead for the far safer option of taking Dan and Rich to Smallmead every Monday evening to watch the Racers roar around the track at 70mph, each race playing out like some graceful but potentially deadly ballet featuring four men on their 500cc motorbikes with no brakes!
As my sons got older, football made a comeback into my life too following decades when the televised FA Cup final and World Cup were about as far as my enthusiasm would stretch. The furore surrounding the introduction of the new Premier League in 1992 and Manchester United's subsequent success reignited a love for the Red Devils that stretched back to 1970, when, as a ten year old boy, I’d witnessed the legendary Bobby Charlton, George Best and Dennis Law at their best during a thrilling Watney Cup match. Old Trafford was 200 miles away and financially beyond reach, so we had to make do with spending our Saturdays on the tumbledown terraces of Reading's old Elm Park ground with a couple of thousand die hard’s, tatty and crumbling for sure but a lot more exciting than the characterless, concrete monoliths that pass for football stadia these days.
Naturally in my customary fashion it didn’t take long before my renewed enthusiasm for the beautiful game ex- tended beyond that of a spectator. Dan had already started playing for a local boys side so when the time came for Rich to do likewise, I took the appropriate coaching badges and committed myself to managing his team for more seasons than I care to remember, putting my heart and soul into it for little reward, not from the kids themselves who were never less than great, but from the nightmare fathers and mothers convinced that their little Johnny was destined to be the next Eric Cantona or Alan Shearer when in truth he could barely kick a ball.
Around the same time we moved house again, this time to Ashbury Drive on the western borders of Tilehurst and an estate built for the aspirational, lower middle classes where the schools were significantly higher up the league table but the properties smaller and more expensive. My God, I may have been a lowly, unskilled, Street Sweeping Chargehand for the local council, but at times it really did feel like I was turning into one of my parents which was kind of ironic given how our three bed semi was less than half a mile from the cottage my father was born in, albeit that in 1933 The City area of Tilehurst had been an impoverished, isolated hamlet.
While I was spending every spare moment with my sons in tow, my wife never seemed to be around much. Not exactly the nurturing, earth mother type, she preferred to spend her time feeding the slot machines at the Top Rank bingo. She had banished me to the spare bedroom and taken to sleeping with a hammer under the bed to deter any thought I may have had of ‘claiming my conjugal rights’ as she so subtly put it. She had no need to worry on that score as there was no danger of that. And yet, although I had grown accustomed to her non-communication, at times I found the loneliness and lack of physical contact so unbearable that when the rare opportunity for a physical relationship with someone else came along I took it.
Through one of these encounters I became friendly with an equally lonely, married woman and began a lengthy affair via discreet lunchtime liaisons in local parks and woods. Two lost souls seeking respite from the misery of marriage, we liked each other well enough but knew deep down that our relationship was based on physical need alone, neither of us ever mentioning the possibility of leaving our respective partners. Indeed, our daytime trysts suited us both just fine until everything came crashing down in the spring of 1994 when I began to suffer from the most agonising bowl pain and the deepest, darkest depths of depression.
Now when you hear about the inner most torment of an Ian Curtis, a Kurt Cobain or even that of a thespian toff like Stephen Fry, it can sound like the coolest, most romantic affliction in the world, much like heroin addiction can to those who know nothing about drugs. Of course in reality it is totally incapacitating, frightening and misery incarnate, the physical symptoms of my own affliction shredding my mind by removing every last vestige of hope and reason to leave me as a gibbering wreck of a man convinced he was about to die.
I had suffered from minor stomach complaints for most of my adult life but the latest manifestation was infinitely more severe. Sentenced to a long series of procedures that inevitably included an assortment of rubber gloved fingers, enemas, cameras and surgical instruments being shoved up my rectum (the coup de grâce being a barium enema which I can only describe as being hung upside down and having irradiated concrete poured into your arse), following months of umming and ahring I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease affecting the lining of the rectum and large bowel that is incurable but treatable. In time I would develop a coping mechanism to reduce my stress acerbated flare ups to little more than a hindrance, albeit significant, extremely painful ones lasting a couple of months or more. But in 1994 my knowledge of the disease was limited and I struggled to rid myself of the depression, paranoia and gut wrenching pain that seemed to dominate my every waking moment. I felt disgusting and worthless and what could be more disgusting and worthless than shit. And I was seeing plenty of that.
There’s no question that my sons were my saviours. They had become my whole reason for being, the reason I got out of bed in the morning, and the reason I managed to crawl into work. I struggled on for as long as I possibly could, aware that any loss of overtime and the additional income it generated would prove problematic, but eventually the doctor signed me off sick for my own good. As luck would have, that meant I was able to spend the six weeks of the school summer holidays at home. Miraculously and quite unexpectedly my deep depression gently lifted to become just a mild pissed off funk. I remember apologising to both my sons for my illness and its effect on them, but as they touched my arm to say ‘That’s OK Dad, you don’t need to apologise’, their unconditional love was so overwhelming it bought tears to my eyes then as the memory of it does now.
In the end we had the greatest of summers wandering through the fields, woods and country lanes surrounding Sulham, Tidmarsh and Theale, day long trips exploring second world war bunkers, derelict farms and forbidden woodland paths. It was a fabulous, magical time and one all three of us knew we would remember for the rest of our lives. And that one summer proved to be the Damascus moment from which I rediscovered an inner strength and purpose I thought I’d lost, a determination to at least try for the possibility of a happier future no matter what. It was crazy really because I had no great plan or even the slightest idea of how I was going to achieve it, and I knew for certain there would be many painful twists and barriers along the way, but at least I had regained some hope and belief and that was enough.
PUBLIC ENEMY ‘Welcome To The Terrordome’ (Fear Of A Black Planet LP April 1990)
How ironic that less than two years after the masterpiece of It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, the most radical hip hop group of all time were being written off as an exotic black Clash; token rebel rockers high on revolutionary rhetoric and hollow gesture. Then came Fear Of A Black Planet to rewrite the book again, a complex, confrontational, political album more akin to high art than a hip hop record.
As for fear of a black planet? It was true then and almost thirty years later it’s true now, a cancer eating away at the soul of white consciousness. In the suburban affluence of my blinkered, southern smalltown, it’s not uncommon to hear intelligent, otherwise quite reasonable, God fearing folk spouting racist shit like ‘Spot the white face’ or ‘Where are all the white singers on X Factor’. Nothing has changed no matter how much we like to think it has.
MY BLOODY VALENTINE ‘Soon’ (Glider EP April 1990)
Now I’m not one of those misguided fools who believed that My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields was some kind of Supreme Being pre-ordained to discover the lost chord, thereby reinventing the language of rock. And yet it’s a fact that by subtly messing around with tunings, rhythm and My Bloody Valentines oddly unique, saccharine coated harmonies, the astonishing ‘Soon’ became something more than just a song and finally equated Shields perfect pop vision with the sound in his fucked up head.
SONIC YOUTH ‘Kool Thing’ (Goo LP June 1990)
Sonic Youth had been New York’s most celebrated avant-garde noiseniks for almost ten years before they shocked everyone by signing to a major label. Members of a small, select, avant-garde and noisy bunch of groups I’d done my best to like, but who were just too, well, avant-garde and noisy, their big move confounded my expectations when they toned down their arty racket, upped the melody quotient and came up with Goo, their best record by some distance.
The almost pop of ‘Kool Thing’ was the best song on it, despite or maybe even because of Chuck D’s strange guest appearance. Only interested in the money, I think it’s safe to say that ol’ Chucky’s heart wasn’t truly in it as he muttered his standard rap cliché’s, yet unwittingly he had played straight into Kim Gordon’s hands when she turned his pathetic non-engagement around to make him sound like a bit of a sexist twat. In a way it was reassuring to know that even the righteous Chuck D could be a dick every so often.
THE KLF ‘What Time Is Love’ (Live At Trancentral) (Single A Side August 1990)
Bill Drummond was a man to be admired. In 1990 the rave scene was jammed with vintage punks who’d seen the light and traded in their guitars for new technology. However, old Bill had beaten them to it four years earlier when at thirty three and a third years old he’d decided his life was ripe for revolution and he began dabbling in early sampling as The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. But it was as The KLF that his adventure would really begin.
‘What Time Is Love’ had already been an underground trance hit and an entire album by the time the 1990 version became a massive pop smash. Nonetheless, despite their obvious populist appeal, The KLF were still infused with Drummond’s original punk on ‘E’ spirit, their art terrorism, ceremonial robes, pagan rituals and blasting of the music industry genuinely subversive even if the man himself preferred to think of it as an ingenious art joke.
HAPPY MONDAYS ‘Kinky Afro’ (Single A Side October 1990)
‘Son, I'm 30 / I only went with your mother 'cause she's dirty / And I don't have a decent bone in me / What you get is just what you see / Yeah’. So said Shaun Ryder and while I would never have dreamt of telling my sons such a thing even if it was true, it couldn’t mask the fact that ‘Kinky Afro’ was the Monday’s last, groovy blast of greatness before their final, written in the stars descent into drug induced slumber.
PET SHOP BOYS ‘Being Boring’ (Single A Side November 1990)
The Pet Shop Boys not only survived but thrived through the post rave reality simply because they had always loved and understood dance music, and unusually for a self-confessed pop group, had a loyal following who stuck with them through their changing tastes. Having soundtracked the eighties sea of excess better than anyone, only the Pet Shop Boys could have had a hit with a slow, sad song called ‘Being Boring’. And only the Pet Shop Boys could have said ta ra to the decade not with a ravey wave but with a dignified and beautiful tribute to all those lost to the holocaust of AIDS. As the worlds of rap and rock began to write and behave as if the virus couldn’t affect them, ‘Being Boring’s undertones of grief and controlled anger seemed all the more relevant.
MASSIVE ATTACK ‘Daydreaming’ (Single A Side November 1990)
In one sense Massive Attacks debut stands as a tribute to the funk, reggae and early hip hop that made The Wild Bunch Bristol’s most popular DJ’s, Robert ‘3-D’ Del Naja, Grant ‘Daddy-G’ Marshall, Andrew ‘Mushroom’ Vowles and associate Adrian ‘Tricky Kid’ Thaws rap about house parties, drugs, urban decay and the eighties under Thatcher presenting an entirely new voice to this Nation’s youth; stoned and strong, British and Jamaican, whispering rather than yelling. As a matter of fact it’s genuinely impossible to imagine the last couple of decades of worthwhile black, British music without their singular and wholly unique vision. And it started here!
MANIC STREET PREACHERS ‘Motown Junk’ (Single A Side January 1991)
My relationship with the Manic’s has been a long and complicated one. In the beginning it was their naïve raging against the dying of the light that made them so compelling, ‘a speed band in an ‘E’ generation' gleefully raining down alienation at a time of hedonistic disengagement by threatening to fight or fuck anyone fortunate enough to witness them live at shitholes like Reading’s After Dark Club. Coming on as painfully passionate yet wonderfully unfashionable in their leopard skin and make up, you had to admire their courage, especially as a 31 year old ex independent record label owner struggling to adjust to work, a miserable marriage and life itself.
CHAPTERHOUSE ‘Pearl’ (Single A Side March 1991)
In the early nineties my hometown found itself at the epicentre of the burgeoning shoegazing scene, groups such as Chapterhouse and Slowdive representing the slightly sad, southern, middle class response to the euphoria of working class Madchester. Being slightly sad, southern and middle class myself, I thought they were great, particularly ‘Pearl’ which harnessed John Bonham’s classic ’When The Levee Breaks’ drum loop to a wash of airy, indistinct vocals and glistening guitars to become surprisingly groovy.
R.E.M. ‘Belong’ (Out Of Time LP March 1991)
In the mid-eighties R.E.M. were nearly always mentioned in the same breath as The Smiths, two groups supposedly giving us all hope for the future of rock. However, even more than Morrissey, Michael Stipe was a master at making us believe that we should rise above the banality of pop to reach some kind of philosophical heaven; a place to ponder on theories, hypotheses and the meaning of life, as if there really is one.
I was having none of it, and with the jingle jangle of Peter Buck’s retro guitar becoming increasingly annoying I barely gave them the time of day until Out Of Time, their huge leap into the mainstream. Steering clear of the worthy alternative rock they had helped create, it was a record of beauty, wonder, strings and harmonies, Stipe laying bare his humanity, humility and knowledge of life’s agonies to provide a healthy dose of medicine for the lost and the lonely. In 1991 I needed as much of that as I could get.
YOUNG MC ‘I Come Off’ [Southern Comfort Mix] (Single A Side March 1991)
While gangsta rap had already turned hip hop into a bit of an embarrassment, sonically it was still miles ahead of everything else. ‘I Come Off’ was one of those records that kept me transfixed. Reconfigured from a nothing album track by British dance wizards C.J. Mackintosh and Dave Dorrell, somehow they magically transformed it into a loping, funk fuelled exposition of black pride and intellect.
SON OF BAZERK ‘One Time For The Rebel’ (Bazerk Bazerk Bazerk LP May 1991)
‘Whole Lotta Love’ Revisited Part One. OK, so I was suckered in by ‘One Time For The Rebel’s mash up of Led Zep’s most famous riff, but Bazerk Bazerk Bazerk – the best hip hop album no-one’s ever heard of – stood at a key moment in the genres history. Following its extraordinarily creative and commercial golden age from 1987 to the early months of 1991, there was a strong belief that the new disciples would accept almost anything, the more out there and experimental the better.
Then Bazerk Bazerk Bazerk bombed and it became clear that in the real world the cutting edge was no place to be. How could it when gangsta rap’s right wing misanthropy had brainwashed young hip hop and rock fans into believing that what they really wanted was bullshit fairy tales of black men dying and black women being abused over a beat that sounded exactly the same, track after track after track. The avant-garde modernity of Son Of Bazerk never stood a chance.
SAINT ETIENNE ‘Nothing Can Stop Us Now’ (Single A Side May 1991)
Saint Etienne were one of those groups who always seemed to slip through the cracks. A strange nineties anachronism, their songs were filled with musty little samples from musty old England set to beats straight off the dancefloor. But it was their overwhelming sense of melancholy that really pulled me in, Sarah Cracknell singing with wide eyed enthusiasm against a backdrop pieced together from the gentler side of pop history. The musical embodiment of late 20th century London, Saint Etienne were the forerunners to all that would be Britpop.
UNDERGROUND RESISTANCE ‘Riot’ (Riot EP June 1991)
The sound of faceless techno ‘never mind the bollocks’, Underground Resistance were kind of like a techno Public Enemy fighting the power. It wasn’t all bullshit either as they organised themselves with military precision, hardcore sonic guerrillas at war with the music industry, ‘Riot’ the lead track on a double twelve inch of nihilistic, anarchistic, furious anger that trampled techno’s hallowed past underfoot.
THE ORB ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ (Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld LP August 1991)
Famously using Rickie Lee Jones blissed out memory (actually she just had a cold) of the skies above her Arizona childhood home, ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ was the harbinger of a veritable deluge of dub infected, ambient techno re-christened chill out. I used to whack it onto my brand new, obscenely expensive Technic’s system, stick on my XXL headphones, pump up the volume, shut my eyes and fuck off to the Sonoran desert for a spot of cloudbusting.
JAH WOBBLE’S INVADERS OF THE HEART ‘Visions Of You’ (Rising Above Bedlam LP September 1991)
I will always retain a soft spot for Jah Wobble, if only for his massive contribution to PiL’s Metal Box. Having dipped in and out of his solo stuff, I found Rising Above Bedlam in a bargain bin and convinced myself to buy it because of Sinead O’ Connor’s appearance on ‘Visions Of You’, his hymn to an infinitely warm, loving and humorous spiritual force and one of those rare songs adored by everyone.
NIRVANA ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ (Nevermind LP September 1991)
Teen rebellion nineties style, full of self-loathing and resignation, knowing what it doesn’t want but not knowing what it does. Nirvana never came close to matching this, the most withering negation of everything rock’n‘roll was supposed to stand for since the dawn of punk.
BELTRAM & PROGRAM 2 ‘The Omen’ [Psychomix] (Single A Side December 1991)
‘Whole Lotta Love’ Revisited Part Two. As unlikely as it may seem, for eighteen months Belgium techno ruled the world. Whiter than white with riffs and dirty noise replacing the clinical blips and beeps of its UK counterpart, suddenly there was talk of techno as the hard rock of the future. The seeds of the new sound actually germinated somewhere between Belgium and New York when wonder kid Joey Beltram, who had already revolutionised techno twice on ‘Energy Flash’ and ‘Mentasm’, consciously recreated the feel of his teenage favourites Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. The third in a magnificent trilogy, ‘The Omen’ went further still by sampling Robert Plant’s sighs and screams from ‘Whole Lotta Love’s spacey middle bit. Infinitely better than a bunch of old indie rockers playing their own crappy pastiche of the seventies, it was the real deal, skilfully reconstructed for the future.
MESSIAH ‘There Is No Law’ (Single A Side May 1992)
By the spring of 1992 rave as a youth phenomenon was dead and buried. For a generation ten years younger than me, it had been their revolution, their punk. And yet with ecstasy as its whole raison d’être, it was only ever going to lead to a woozy, hippy, hell hole of junked up, alternative reality. It was inevitable that the constant hunger for a heaven on earth would end in a wave of paranoia and gun violence as the movers and shakers came down with a shuddering, sickening crash, unable to cope with the reality that the rest of their lives would never match their past. Of course none of this had much to do with Messiah, a pair of unlikely London herbert’s, but musically ‘There Is No Law’ did foresee one way out of the malaise by blending classic rock and Belgium hardcore with jungle riffs at least two years ahead of their time.
THE DISPOSABLE HEROES OF HIPHOPRISY ‘Language Of Violence’ (Single A Side May 1992)
As the country revelled in ‘E’ induced love and optimism, the stupidly happy mask of the smiley obscuring the black hole of delusion and depression, no-one was listening to political hip hop or Michael Franti’s incredible ‘Language Of Violence’. Carried along by a slow, claustrophobic, mutant funk, it was as draining a listen as I’d ever heard yet so insightful and influential it was responsible for making none other than ‘original Gangsta’ and committed homophobe Ice T rethink his attitude.
DAS EFX ‘They Want EFX’ (Single A Side August 1992)
A few flashes of individual brilliance managed to penetrate hop hop’s juvenile, delinquent sleaze of guns, bitches and bling. Kicking off with a triumphant ‘Bum stiggidy bum stiggidy bum!’ before name checking Pinocchio, The Sound Of Music, Dem bones, ‘Shiver me timbers’ and countless nursery rhymes, Das EFX managed to make their gobbledegook sound other worldly and very important by signposting a long lost route back to Little Richard and ‘A wop bop a loo bop.’
THE PHARCYDE ‘Oh Shit’ (Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde LP October 1992)
As believable as they were cartoonish, as much an inner city cipher as a suburban boy’s gang, on their debut and magnum opus Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde created a record stuffed with possibility. The sound of four restless man children fresh out of their teens, finding the perfect outlet in a genre that was just as young and fertile, it was a simple party album about shyness and unrequited love with no room for political correctness because in 1992 that concept had yet to be invented.
While hip-hop was already calcifying its tropes of steely machismo and aspirational fantasy, Bizarre Ride II was a pure distillation of the average hip hop listener's actual lifestyle, the joys and sorrows of four kids who were young, broke, sexually frustrated and way too clever for their own good. A touchstone for a generation of left field rappers, The Pharcyde sketched out a strata of emotions that other rappers hadn't yet dared to tackle, and to a certain extent still haven't.
2PAC ‘Holler If Ya Hear Me’ (Single A Side February 1993)
No matter what the media leeches would have us believe, Tupac Shakur wasn’t always the gangsta thug supreme. Born to Black Panther parents, not only was his childhood steeped in the civil rights movement, black pride and black consciousness, Shakespeare, Duran Duran and British invasion, eighties pop also played their part. As a result, despite being a venomous, free flowing, rhyme of resistance, ‘Holler If Ya Hear Me’ was hardly standard gangsta fare, possessing a certain political awareness that Tupac’s rivals (and friends) were either too self-obsessed or too dumb to care about.
KRS ONE ‘Sound Of Da Police’ (Return Of The Boom Bap LP April 1993)
Speaking of rhymes of resistance, there surely aren’t many angrier than ‘Sound Of Da Police’. Kris Parker was the original South Bronx gangsta until his Boogie Down Productions partner Scott La Rock was shot dead. Turning his back on negative rage he began to follow a more positive path of teaching and preaching, ‘Sound Of Da Police’ his masterpiece of righteous protest shot through with the weight of history, detailing generation upon generation of institutionalized racism from the days of slavery to the right wing police state of the early nineties.
JESUS AND MARY CHAIN ‘Snakedriver’ (Sound Of Speed EP June 1993)
Apart from The Cramps, the Mary Chain were the greatest at epitomising dumb fuck rock’n’roll, ‘Snakedriver’ howling, hollering and moaning along with the best of them as the haunted spirits of Brian Wilson and Chuck Berry fought to escape the cacophony before being dragged back in kicking and screaming.
BJORK ‘Big Time Sensuality’ (Debut LP July 1993)
Just before Nirvana’s In Utero killed grunge and Britpop went overground via Blur’s Parklife, Björk's Debut came out of nowhere. Featuring elements of techno, trip-hop, jazz and pop, and influenced by Bollywood soundtracks and the buzz of London nightlife, it was a remarkable album fuelled by her sheer force of personality. Coming at a time when I would have done anything to get away from boys with noisy guitars and shitty indie values, it sounded like Björk felt the same, ditching the trad rock of The Sugarcubes in favour of something altogether more electronic, experimental and eclectic.
Infusing Debut with a sense of wide-eyed naivety and wonder, ‘Big Time Sensuality’ was its most joyous moment, a techno tinged celebration of living each moment to the full. While pop in the 21st century continues to drown in a retromania that looks like it’s here to stay, Björk's ability on Debut to innovate by using disparate genres without losing a sense of her own identity remains the blueprint to follow for any new artist with a desire to break the chains binding them to the past.
STEREOLAB ‘French Disko’ (Single A Side October 1993)
One group the Manic’s Nicky Wire and Richie Edwards loved beyond reason were Marxist indie poppers McCarthy who in truth were no better or worse than a hundred other cutie pie C86’ers. By 1990 they had become Stereolab who retained the same honourable principles as their forebears but added a suave, European, easy listening air to the politicking, ‘French Disco’ the rough diamond in their worthy, sophisticated milieu.
A TRIBE CALLED QUEST ‘Oh My God’ (Midnight Marauders LP October 1993)
As hip hop became big enough to support both an underground and a mainstream, the greatest hip hop group of all time became prime movers in giving that underground a place and meaning. They did it with an understanding that rhyme culture was all about intelligence, and rising above rather than revelling in the shit by boasting about the size of your gun or your cock. It was a template for musicality that dismissed the reliance on familiar hook lines stolen from well-known songs, and discussed sex without demeaning or patronising women. In the mid-nineties that was revolutionary in itself but also let us know that Cypress Hill, Dr Dre and Snoop Deputy Dawg weren’t our only option.
WU-TANG CLAN ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ (Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers) LP November 1993)
Rap may have been born and bred in the streets of New York but the serious action had shifted to California before the Wu Tang Clan dragged it back east with Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers). A cocktail of street tales and RZA’s surreal, menacing soundscapes of hardcore beats, eerie piano riffs and minimalism, it was far removed from the gangsta G-Funk of Dre and his Death Row bozo’s, upping the ante to inspire a new generation of NYC rappers.
DJ SHADOW & THE GROOVE ROBBERS ‘In Flux (In Tune And On Time)’ (Single A Side December 1993)
In the end it took a white Californian kid to find a way out of the west coast gangsta malaise. Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, was the first to create seamless, instrumental music from the bits and pieces of discarded, long forgotten vinyl and transform them into something informed by its own sense of tempo, time and texture. On first hearing I was genuinely astounded, convinced I'd heard the sound of a future that only required a sampler, a bunch of obscure second hand records and the imagination of a classical composer to reconstruct them into something special. Piece of piss!
TRICKY ‘Aftermath’ (Single A Side January 1994)
‘Aftermath’ arrived just as I became lost in a cycle of destructive pain and anguish. Wallowing in the terrifying grip of impending doom, even listening to music was of no interest, but when the darkness lifted just enough it was always a title, a phrase or a sound reflecting my despair that seemed to hit home the most. While the sombre mood of ‘Aftermath’ could be interpreted any number of ways, it was the simple ‘Let me tell you about my mother’ line lifted from Bladerunner and Tricky’s eerie dread surrounding it that connected the most.
Spoken by Leon, a replicant humanoid with only false, implanted memories of maternal love, in my darkest hours I thought him fortunate to at least have false memories because I had none. Raised in an emotion free zone, to her dying day my mother never told me she loved me or demonstrated any affection whatsoever. Someway, somehow she just expected me to know, thereby absolving herself of any responsibility for the damage she caused.
COCTEAU TWINS ‘Bluebeard’ (Single A Side February 1994)
Before the non-Britpop, Britpop era classic ‘Bluebeard’, the Cocteau Twins had spent the previous decade carefully constructing their catalogue of ethereal curiosities. Then they began to break down both professionally and personally, the incredibly fragile Elizabeth Fraser in particular applying a directness to her work that had previously been wrapped in mystery. Never one for the Cocteau’s airy fairy brand of otherworldly nonsense, ‘Bluebeard’ connected as an uplifting celebration of confusion and alienation that seemed to confirm the futility of my existence while encouraging me to keep breathing and start looking for an escape route.
BLUR ‘End Of A Century’ (Parklife LP April 1994)
So finally they came, tumbling over Primrose Hill, swarming onto the streets of Camden Town with their swinging sixties obsession and hatred of grunge ready for indie pop’s last desperate stab at the big time. Parklife may not have been the Britpop hordes first attempt at the summit, but Damon Albarn’s downcast paean to a country that had clearly gone to the dogs was the one to kick start the new era and take the novel concept of Britishness into the provinces.
Mapping out a disappearing world of darkened arterial roads, Doc Martins, street markets, the subtle magic of the shipping forecast and the mundane routine of suburban living, it followed the spirit, if not the sound of typically English pop; The Kinks, Small Faces, Syd Barrett, The Jam, XTC, The Smiths. Of course, most of what followed replaced those artful influences with moronic, get rich quick, laddism but that was hardly Blur’s fault, and as clichéd as it has become, Parklife still stands as one of Britpop’s rare highlights.
MAZZY STAR ‘Fade Into You’ (Single A Side April 1994)
It’s easy to forget what a daft, wonderful thing pop music can be and how it can suddenly skip unexpectedly into your life to make your world a happier place. I knew literally nothing about Mazzy Star in 1994, but guess what, it really didn’t matter because ‘Fade Into You’ did everything a dreamy pop song should do by brightening my day every time I heard it.
NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS ‘Red Right Hand’ (Let Love In LP April 1994)
Creating an imaginary place for me to hide out in times of disease and despair, Let Love In’s mesmerising, six minute centrepiece ‘Red Right Hand’ was a menacing folk tale about some unspecified bogeyman (Satan, a drug dealer, a dream weaver, death itself?) who haunted some Godforsaken, swamp bound town untouched by modern science, where ghoulish women pushed men to murder while the undertaker led the townsfolk in an ironic chorus of ‘What A Friend We Have In Jesus’. Taking on a brand new life of its own, in the second decade of the new millennium it was resurrected to become the unforgettable theme song to the remarkable Peaky Blinders TV series. Hells bells indeed!
NAS ‘Halftime’ (Illmatic LP April 1994)
JERU THE DAMAJA ‘Come Clean’ (Single A Side May 1994)
Two very different milestones from hip hop’s short history marked a creative peak that would never be equalled. The legendary debut of one Nasir Jones from Queens, New York was hailed as the second coming and in the wake of the Wu Tang Clan steamrollered all before it. With its articulate, politically aware reportage tripping over dense, scratch reviving beats, Illmatic was everything hip hop was meant to be. Listen to the battle rhyme, ghetto testimony of ‘Halftime’ and you’ll know exactly why it influenced the world.
And yet, as Nas built a lucrative career from a debut he never bettered, fellow New Yorker Jeru faded from view despite ‘Come Clean’ being such an extraordinary one off. One of the first rappers to pronounce himself anti-gangsta and bring verbal sparring and imagination back into the fold, from this point on hip hop would become the black equivalent of middle of the road country music with the occasional, odd genius desperately trying to stay afloat in an ever rising tide of shit.
PORTISHEAD ‘Glory Box’ (Dummy LP August 1994)
Long, long, ago in the foreign country that was my past, a haunting melody began running around my head. Convinced it came from the French Robinson Crusoe TV theme that had dominated my childhood, suddenly there it was in all its magnificence on Portishead’s ‘Glory Box’. Except no it wasn’t because as I would soon discover, the ghostly, ever circling strings I loved so much had been pinched from Isaac Hayes ‘Ike’s Rap 2’, a track from his 1971 album Black Moses and an album my old man had buried in his record collection but never seemed to play. Spooky! So now, when I hear ‘Glory Box’ I immediately think of Robinson Crusoe, Isaac Hayes and my Dad. Ain’t it funny how the connection between memory, music and life works out sometimes?
LAIKA ‘Coming Down Glass’ (Silver Apples Of The Moon LP October 1994)
Just before Britpop hit big, Laika were thrown headlong into the artsy, bohemian, post rock pot, even though Silver Apples Of The Moon focused obsessively on rhythm and groove which wasn’t post rock at all. Instead it was actually rather great.
METHOD MAN ‘Bring The Pain’ (Tical LP November 1994)
In the mid-nineties I was still listening to loads of hip hop records including Method Man, one of the more visible members of the Wu Tang collective. Filled to bursting with a renewed sense of optimism, as I patiently awaited a new future, Tical’s roots reggae feel mooched along at a bass shaking amble with ghostly shards of liberating rhetoric cutting through the dope fuelled plumes.